Viewers able to read Arabic who caught last Sunday’s US airing of the award-winning television show Homeland may have noticed something bizarre about the graffiti lining the walls of the Syrian refugee camp: Splashed across the fictional set were messages in Arabic that read, “Homeland is racist,” “Homeland is a joke, and it didn’t make us laugh,” and more blatant criticisms of the program, which is now in its fifth season. “#blacklivesmatter,” too, appears on one brick wall in green paint. The words are the work of “The Arabian Street Artists,” a trio that Homeland itself hired to adorn the set with “realistic” street tags. The artists revealed the ruse — which they label a “hack” on the series — yesterday, explaining that they had conceived of it as an intervention to protest their discontentment with the show’s political messages.
As Egyptian artist Heba Y. Amin wrote yesterday in a statement on her website:
The series has garnered the reputation of being the most bigoted show on television for its inaccurate, undifferentiated, and highly biased depiction of Arabs, Pakistanis, and Afghans, as well as its gross misrepresentations of the cities of Beirut, Islamabad, and the so-called Muslim world in general. For four seasons, and entering its fifth, “Homeland” has maintained the dichotomy of the photogenic, mainly white, mostly American protector versus the evil and backwards Muslim threat.
She cites, for example, an Al Jazeera article that discusses the show’s limited perspective in portraying Arabs, as well as a Buzzfeed video that points out clear cultural oversights on the part of the producers, such as the fact that one head terrorist in the fourth season shares a name with a former, actual Pakistani ambassador to the US. In another language-related mishap, one episode in the second season displayed advertisements and posters with Hebrew text lining the streets of Beirut.
Amin, joined by fellow Berlin-based graphic designer Caram Kapp and graffiti artist Stone (aka Don Karl), was initially hesitant to assist with the set when she received a call in June from a friend whom the series’ set production company had asked to find “Arabian street artists.” She realized, however, that the opportunity presented “our moment to make our point by subverting the message using the show itself,” as she writes on her website. As she describes, the only instruction Homeland relayed to the artists was that the graffiti had to be apolitical and free of copyright restriction. The show’s designers also told her that writing “’Mohamed is the greatest’ is okay of course.”
The artists, borrowing the company’s language to call themselves “The Arabian Street Artists,” executed the work in just two days. Amin notes that set designers, with their attention devoted to transforming what had formerly been an animal feed plant on the fringes of Berlin into an authentic-looking refugee camp, seemed unconcerned about understanding the content of the painted script appearing around them. This negligence is itself telling of the reduced role such visuals play, in particular, in the Western entertainment industry.
“In their eyes, Arabic script is merely a supplementary visual that completes the horror-fantasy of the Middle East, a poster image dehumanizing an entire region to human-less figures in black burkas, and moreover, this season, to refugees,” Amin writes.
Homeland has since responded to the artists’ announcement, issuing a public statement that acknowledges the protest action but skirts addressing its intention.
“We wish we’d caught these images before they made it to air,” co-creator Alex Gansa said. “However, as ‘Homeland’ always strives to be subversive in its own right and a stimulus for conversation, we can’t help but admire this act of artistic sabotage.” The episode is set to air in the UK next Sunday.